Cycle Superhighways: A Visionary’s Dream

Looking around the globe, it’s not difficult to discern how much more advanced other countries are with respect to viewing bicycling as a legitimate form of transportation. Take London’s new Barclays Cycle Superhighways for example. Just the name of this undertaking is breathtaking. Who would have thought that bicycles could warrant their own superhighway? Well, obviously the authorities in London thought so.

Their new superhighways are a great success. According to Transport for London (TfL):

“The number of journeys made on the first two Barclays Cycle Superhighways has doubled on some stretches of the routes during rush hour.

Overall, the number of people riding on the two routes, from Merton to the City and Barking to Tower Gateway, rose by a combined 70% in October 2010 compared to a year earlier, prior to the introduction of the Cycle Superhighways.

The South West London route saw a 50% increase in cyclist numbers, while the one in East London achieved a more than two-fold increase.”

With these successes came a few failures. Every new idea has kinks to work out.

“The Cycle Superhighways have not been without their critics, however, with drawbacks highlighted including the fact that they are too narrow and often have vehicles parked on them as well as the routes following busy main roads.”

The narrowness of the superhighways may be due to do their placement along busy main roads. Those roads, like many of our major roads, were designed for cars. Bicycle accommodations were an afterthought. And, just as we experience here, vehicles park on the cycle superhighways, making them impassable for cyclists.

Still, cycling advocates in the U.S. should take note. Creating safe, separate superhighways for London cyclists led to a huge increase in cycling as a form of transportation. I wonder whether we could achieve a similar result here. Attempting it would be a massive undertaking. No doubt, there would be resistance from the anti-bicycling zealots.

But, the real question is: would Americans take to cycling as readily as UK citizens? Cycling is much more acceptable in Europe than in the U.S. where cyclists are regarded as a fringe element.

In addition to the increase in ridership, lessons learned from the initial Cycle Superhighways led to an impressive list of recommendations to be incorporated into other planned routes.

“Those recommendations include:

  • all the blue cycle lanes to be 2 metres wide and mandatory
  • all the advance stop lines to be 5 metres deep
  • all parts of the routes which are one-way to be made two-way for cyclists
  • all junctions on each route to be improved
  • 20 mph speed limits to be introduced for all busy sections and
  • a Met Police Cycle Task Force enforcement campaign for each cycle superhighway when launched.”

Aside from the practical and safety considerations, they made sure to include a “Met Police Cycle Task Force enforcement campaign for each cycle superhighway.” Clearly, they are serious about enforcement, something sorely lacking on U.S. bike routes.

Back home, Massachusetts is attempting to implement a statewide bicycle transportation plan (Bay State Greenway). Completion of this project is many years away. Even if the state creates corridors from one popular location to another, the hostile riding environment between cyclists’ homes and the corridors will be an impediment to using those corridors. If a cyclist has to transport his/her bicycle by car or public transportation to the corridor, it will defeat the purpose of a statewide bicycle network.

No matter what the state plans, a majority of cycling issues fall within local jurisdictions. And, Massachusetts cities and towns vary greatly in demand for bicycling facilities. Cooperation between adjacent towns will not be easy to attain, particularly in light of the fact that many Massachusetts residents are opposed to expending funds for bicycling facilities. For the foreseeable future, there will be resistance to the idea of providing cyclists with safe access to roads designed exclusively for cars.

Despite a great deal of discussion about planned routes and funding, there is little talk about cultural considerations. I’m skeptical of any attempt to implement and maintain bicycling networks simply because such facilities are inconsistent with American culture. Ours is a car-centric, quick and hasty transportation culture. There is also an element of classism in perceptions regarding cars versus bicycles.

Cars connote wealth and status. They represent a life of ease and luxury. Bicycles are perceived as a means of transportation reserved for lower classes who have not attained the easy life (which is the crux of the American Dream). Slow and labored transportation represents life’s hardships, and most Americans don’t want to be associated with those hardships because they mean that one hasn’t “made it.”

What it boils down to is a question of values. Changing cultural values won’t be easy; the task goes beyond mere education to cultural identity. Still, it’s a noble cause, and one worth pursuing. Let’s just hope that there are enough cycling advocates, with enough stamina, to see this endeavor through.

For now, we can only dream about continuity in bicycle routes. But, maybe London’s success will change a few obstinate minds about the value of investing in cycling infrastructure.

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One Response to Cycle Superhighways: A Visionary’s Dream

  1. Len Granvil says:

    Thanks for this post. I entirely agree with what you are saying. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so normally this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

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